Odds are, you come into contact with cotton every day, in your clothes, your bedsheets, and even your coffee filters.
Soon the “Fabric of Our Lives” might be on your plates, too. Well, sort of. This month the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) declared a genetically engineered form of cotton, developed by Keerti Rathore, a professor of plant biotechnology at Texas A&M University, officially safe to eat. The gene editing only affects the seeds of the plant, not the fluffy stuff used to make your t-shirts, pants, and socks.
Seeds are often used as a source of protein or fat — think sunflower, pumpkin, etc. — but cotton seeds contain gossypol, a chemical that’s harmful to humans. Food companies have already developed a process to remove the chemical from pressed cottonseed oil, which is currently sold in various food products and vegetable oil mixes. However, Rathore’s process, called “RNA interference,” shuts off the gossypol gene in cotton seeds so people can safely eat them in their whole form. It also keeps the gossypol in the rest of the cotton plant, where it acts as a natural pest deterrent.
Since cotton is relatively plentiful, Rathore told Reuters that he hopes that the seeds could be an affordable, nutrient-rich source of protein when added to products like granola, breads or energy bars. Cottonseed meal (what remains after the seeds have been pressed for oil) could also be used to feed fish, pigs and other animals, all of which are also sensitive to gossypol.
However, it’ll be a while before humans (or fish) get a chance to sample these new gene-edited cotton seeds. Rathore hasn’t given an exact timeline, but he told the New Food Economy he first has to license out his technology to seed companies, which can then sell to farmers.
According to Rathore, the impact from adding cotton seeds to the food system could be significant. “There are approximately 10.8 trillion grams of protein locked up in the annual global output of cottonseed,” he told Reuters. “This is enough to meet the basic protein requirements of over 500 million people at a rate of 50 grams of protein per person per day.” Since many of the world’s cotton-producing countries, specifically in African and Asia, struggle with malnutrition, that protein could make a real difference.
The cotton seeds aren’t the first FDA-approved gene-edited food. Earlier this year biotech company Calyxt began selling a gene-edited soybean oil that doesn’t require trans fats for shelf stability. Yield10 Biosciences is developing genetically engineered corn kernels to produce greater outputs. We’ve also been eating FDA-approved genetically modified foods (GMO’s) for decades, especially corn and soy.
Like GMO’s, gene editing foods — including those made using CRISPR — carry a fair bit of controversy. However, the potential benefits are significant. The new gossypol-free cotton seeds give a glimpse into how gene editing can impact our food system. As climate change and deteriorating soil conditions make it harder to cultivate certain crops, gene editing technology could not only save some of our favorite foods — like coffee and chocolate — but could also help us open the door to entirely new protein sources. Throw in a population set to hit roughly 10 billion by 2050, and these sources could be critical to helping us feed a hungry world.